By Maria Golovnina ATA-BEIIT, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - The United States stopped all troops flying to Afghanistan via its air base in Kyrgyzstan as security concerns persisted on Saturday following an uprising in the Central Asian republic.
But the opposition leaders who have taken power pledged in a call with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to honour agreements on the Manas base, having suggested they might align themselves more closely with Russia and shorten the U.S. lease.
The Manas base is key to the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan, but a thorn in the side of Russia, which has given its support to the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in a poor ex-Soviet state that it sees as part of its back yard.
Clinton spoke with interim leader Roza Otunbayeva by phone, spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement.
“Ms. Otunbayeva confirmed the Kyrgyz administration will abide by previous agreements regarding the (airport),” he said.
An envoy from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the new provisional government had held talks with Bakiyev on ways to end the crisis.
Bakiyev has retreated to a secret location in his stronghold in the south, and had offered the new rulers negotiations.
It was not clear how the talks were conducted or whether the aim went beyond discussing the terms of Bakiyev’s departure — the only issue the interim government had said it would discuss.
But Bakiyev told Russian Newsweek magazine he was prepared to resign, according to excerpts from an interview released ahead of publication.
“Yes, I am ready. If they want me to resign,” he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. “But I do not know what I will get in exchange. Therefore, we have to meet and discuss.”
“My plan of action is to preserve stability at least in the south of Kyrgyzstan. I will do everything possible to prevent a civil war as the people who are being appointed (to senior posts) also cause certain discontent.”
Otunbayeva, interim leader of a country where a third of the 5.3 million population live below the poverty line, has offered Bakiyev safe passage abroad if he steps down.
Visiting OSCE envoy Zhanybek Karibzhanov told reporters:
“I can’t say anything yet on the results of the talks but the most important thing is that the process has started.”
Up to 10,000 mourners gathered on the edge of Bishkek at a funeral to commemorate at least 78 people killed when troops loyal to Bakiyev shot into crowds of protesters on Wednesday.
In a reflection of the lingering tension, U.S. military Central Command said all military passenger flights had been suspended from Manas, and cargo flights were not guaranteed.
A U.S. official in Washington said the decision was made by the base commander on security grounds.
Pentagon officials say Manas is key to the war against the Taliban, allowing around-the-clock flights in and out of Afghanistan. About 50,000 troops passed through last month.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government has said Russia is its key ally and some leading ministers have said the U.S. lease on the base could be shortened. A top Russian official said this week there should be only one base in Kyrgyzstan: Russia’s Kant base.
On the outskirts of Bishkek, mourners showed little sympathy for Bakiyev.
Carrying coffins draped in the red-and-yellow Kyrgyz national flag, they clutched portraits of the dead at a memorial complex built in honour of the victims of mass executions ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the 1930s.
Relatives lowered bodies into 16 graves lined in rows and joined hands in prayer, while mullahs chanted in Arabic.
“Those who died on April 7 are the heroes of Kyrgyzstan,” Otunbayeva told the crowd.
On Wednesday, Reuters reporters saw dozens of riot police and troops repeatedly fire into crowds who had massed on the main square outside Bakiyev’s offices.
Kuat Niyazbekov said his brother had died in the uprising.
“We don’t even know what really happened on the square, what his last minutes of life were like,” he said. “We can’t forgive a president like that.”
The interim government says Bakiyev’s supporters continue to stoke violence. In the southerly city of Jalalabad, 200 people gathered near a billboard picturing a smiling Bakiyev shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
But in the same city, around 5,000 people demonstrated in favour of unity, urging supporters of Bakiyev’s overthrown government not to start a civil war.
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Jalalabad and Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; Writing by Maria Golovnina, Robin Paxton, Guy Faulconbridge and Kevin Liffey